The Rickie Fowler Impact
At 25, he's a model of the modern tour pro: A one-man brand on and off the course
Rickie Fowler is an action guy. The Internet is loaded with footage of him getting air on a dirt bike, being jostled in the cockpit of a wildly spinning aerobatic plane, performing back flips off boat docks, and donning Day-Glo fashions while flag-hunting on the PGA Tour. And speaking of high risk, how about those so-bad-they're-good Golf Boys videos?
But it turns out that this 25-year-old representative of edgy youth-oriented brands like Red Bull, Puma and Cobra, who for good measure plays alter-ego "Dick Fowler, P.I." with an easy deadpan in campy spoofs for Farmers Insurance, is actually the watchful type. Under the same flat-bill golf cap that fills tournament merchandise tents — mandatory issue for Rickie-crazed grandchildren — resides an intuitive mind that mulls the changing landscape of opportunity confronting the modern tour pro before making (so far) unerringly lucrative and well-suited career choices. That is, when he isn't posting ephemera on his Twitter handle (@RickieFowlerPGA, 664,000 followers) and on Instagram (@therealrickiefowler, 237,000).
"It kind of surprises people, but Rickie is naturally an observer," says Seth Waugh, the retired former CEO of Deutsche Bank who is a friend to top tour pros, many of whom ask him for business advice. "He watches how things work, the people who do it well, figures out who he wants to emulate to achieve the right fit, and then goes in that direction. He's a very good judge of what's right and wrong for him."
Fowler has taken advantage of a nontraditional route to sports marketing created by the ravages of the recession. Because companies are being increasingly careful with spending endorsement dollars, they are enlisting fewer golfers and demanding much more engagement from those they do sign up. It means deals that require more commitments like photo shoots, dinners, outings and social media than bygone players would have agreed to when they had greater leverage. But to those who are willing to play by the new rules, the exposure and rewards can be great. Fowler, who in 2013 earned about $4.5 million off the course — his $6.7 million estimated total ranked him 35th on the Golf Digest 50 list -- has built a reputation as a full-service partner who corporations highly value for over-delivering. In the process, he has become a model for a younger generation of players who accept that a more-collaborative relationship with a corporate partner is the new normal.
With enough of an old-school sensibility to be acutely aware that raking in big money with only one PGA Tour career victory in five pro seasons opens him to suspicions of selling out, Fowler is slightly defensive about the trajectory of his young career. "My main focus coming out wasn't to build a business or a brand," he says. "My dream was to make it on the PGA Tour. With that as my No. 1 focus, whatever went along with that, I did."
Of course, "whatever went along with that" can be interpreted in varying degrees. To skeptics, anything that distracts from the single-minded devotion to improvement leads to Faustian bargains that can ruin careers.
"Too many of today's young players are seeing their development stalled because the current environment is rewarding good marketing more than good play," says one veteran agent. "The incentive to be a great player has been greatly diminished."
But other players and agents aren't as apocalyptic, contending that competitiveness differs from player to player, and that most have continued to maintain or even improve their on-course performance as they've entered into contracts that demand their time. Phil Mickelson, known for his strong engagement in corporate relationships, has been a key influence on Fowler. For those in the current era who have the chops and the Q Score, associating with relatively demanding but generous marketing partners is considered the smart play.
"These guys have all essentially become CEOs of their own business," Waugh says. "Their product is hitting 7-irons to three feet. That's unbelievably hard, but the rest of the deal is also complicated. What's the right blend? Rickie has the aptitude for the off-course stuff, and I don't think you just throw that back. But you have to take care of the product, or the hats just don't look as good. And I know that's how Rickie's wired."
A new influence: Butch HarmonFowler seemed to be following that script when he took on Butch Harmon as his swing coach last year. Fowler hadn't worked with anyone since the death of his original teacher, Barry McDonnell, in 2011. When Fowler was 7, he and McDonnell began honing a feel-oriented swing with a few unorthodox moves. But after Fowler missed the cut at the 2013 British Open at Muirfield, he texted Harmon and arranged to meet with him the next day on the range.
"Rickie told me, 'I want to be known for more than my clothes and my hat. I want to be known for my game. Can you help me?'" Harmon says. Although at 70 he is trying to cut back his stable of players, Harmon sensed Fowler's desire to improve and agreed to be his new teacher.
"He's shown me the ability to manage and budget his time well," Harmon says. "In that way, Rickie reminds me of Greg Norman, who had so many business projects going on when I coached him but always worked very hard. For a young guy, Rickie's been able to balance the on-course with the off-course exceptionally well. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that he truly wants to be a great player."